Monday, September 22, 2014

What have we Learned Since September 11, 2001

On the Monday following September 11, 2014, I visited what used to be called "Ground Zero", and now is called the 9-11 Memorial and Museum. In 2001, I was in New York during the Christmas break and made my way down to the smoking remains of the twin towers. I smelled the acrid air; I saw the fences around St. Paul's Chapel covered with photos, flowers, missing persons signs--the jutting remains of the iron skeleton like a massive tombstone. Like almost all Americans, I felt anger, sadness, and a sense of wonder and confusion about the vulnerability we had to acknowledge our way of life allowed. I also tussled with the question so many asked, "Why do they (so many in the Muslim world) hate us?" knowing that it was wrapped up in our support of Israel (a country that I support while not agreeing with all of its policies), our support of Arab dictators who kept our oil supply flowing, our way of life, so enticing and yet so evil in the eyes of all religious fundamentalists – not just Muslim.  How would we balance freedom and security?

I understood and supported our attack on Afghanistan, as did many of our allies who sent troops or other resources. After all, the Taliban government there was supporting and protecting our attacker, Al Qaida, which threatened many civilized nations. I did not realize, however, that our attack would mean we would spend more than a decade fighting there. By the time the Bush administration was gearing up to go to war in Iraq, I was highly suspicious of the motives and veracity of the Bush administration’s claims. I couldn't help but agree that Sadaam Hussein was a vicious tyrant, but should the United States be in the business of going to war, preemptively, to remove every dictator who might pose a threat to us?

Coming up out of the subway thirteen years later our troops are still in Afghanistan and the possibility exists that when these troops leave, the Taliban or a corrupt dictator will return to power there. And with President Obama announcing a new campaign against ISIS, a vicious extremist group now establishing a terrorist stronghold straddling Iraq and Syria, I was moved to ask myself what we have learned.

Most of us have learned that we shouldn’t invade every country with terrorists or leaders who may pose a threat. We might be able to invade and conquer, but then we end up having to support them: “You break it, you bought it,” General Colin Powell warned before we went into Iraq.  And our ability to win hearts and minds after destroying a country is limited. Our ability to help countries solve centuries old tribal and sectarian grievances is also limited.

President Obama tells us he’s learned that we can and must fight and destroy terrorist networks that threaten us wherever they are in the world. But we’ve learned that the job of distinguishing between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is not so easy. Actually, it never has been. Ronald Reagan helped strengthen Al Qaida by supporting the Afghani “freedom fighters” who drove out the Soviet Union. We supported and armed Sadaam Hussein in his wars against Iran. The elected leader of Iraq, Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, sowed the seeds of ISIS success there by marginalizing and discriminating against Iraq’s Sunnis.

Americans want their president to be tough and strong in response to threats. Everyone recognized ISIS was dangerous, but the beheading of two American journalists made them our enemies: mass murders, rapes, stonings, kidnappings, and various other war crimes against Syrians and Iraqis were not enough for most of us to want to take action. But fighting them in Syria is likely to help the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. Some fear we will end up with “boots on the ground,” and some think we should send troops now.

Before 9/11/2001, I, and most Americans, did not know the words Sunni and Shiite. We did know that Iran was Shiite, that there was a Shiite majority in Iraq ruled by an elitist and often brutal Sunni majority led by Sadaam Hussein, that the Saudis protected, funded, and exported an extremist Islamic group called Wahhabis, who had spawned Osama Bin Laden. And not knowing all that, many of us believed the fantasies that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney spun that establishing democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan would be as simple as scheduling an election. And when the Arab Spring began, we allowed ourselves to believe that democracies were bound to flower when dictators were forced aside through mass demonstrations.

We have learned that the world is much more complicated and much less predictable than we wish it were. Too many of us yearn for the simplicity of the black and white world Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush painted. We don’t like the honesty in the shades of grey that Obama has acknowledged is what exists. But in the long run, and it appears that it will be a long run, acknowledging those shades of grey may save us red (blood) and green (treasure).

So what was it like to visit the 9-11 Museum and Memorial? The Memorial on the plaza above the museum is a peaceful shrine, the names of the dead engraved in marble bannisters surrounding waterfalls endlessly pouring into the deep holes of the footprints of the twin towers. The museum is a testimonial and a history, a reminder for those of us who lived through this time, a chance for those who didn’t to get a sense of what those who did saw and heard that day and in the days following. I won’t say you must go, for some it may prove too difficult to relive those times, but having visited, I am reminded that war is traumatic in a way that newspapers and TV can’t convey. We experienced an act of war on our soil in 2001 that killed almost 3,000 innocent Americans, setting us on a path to actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and now Syria. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed or wounded at the hands of our military and at the hands of those fighting us or each other.  The fact that we try not to kill innocents does not seem to count for much. Beautiful memorials and expensive museums will probably not be built for them. But the memories of our role will not be easily forgotten.

a shortened version of this essay was published in the Charleston Gazette on Oct. 15, 2014: